RTLM used the FM frequency and in the beginning, its broadcast range was limited to Kigali, whereas Radio Rwanda’s reached the entire country. «The station would eventually have a transmitter that could reach the whole of Kigali, part of the Burgesera to the south, and Kibungo to the east. Another transmitter was installed towards the end of January 1994 on Mount Nuhe, in Gisenyi prefecture, which allowed broadcasts to the north, till Ruhengeri. The only places where it was difficult to hear RTLM were in Butare in the south and in Gisenyi town in the north. The leadership of RTLM wanted to place the transmitter in a secure area where there was a strong membership of MRND» (Linda Melvern, Conspiracy to Murder, cit.).
RTLM, which became the ‘voice’ of Hutu Pawa, gained immediate success thanks to its lively music – Congolese pop songs mainly – its informal, often cheeky style of communication, and its irresistible mix of conversational register, populist approach, and street language. «Announcers employed a popular variety of anecdotes, stories, insults, personal messages, and humorous remarks» (C.L. Kellow and H. L. Steeves, The Role of Radio in the Rwandan Genocide, see Bibliography), mainly in Kinyarwanda (only some prime time broadcasts were in French).
The success was quite immediate. «Jean-Philippe Ceppi, a Western journalist present before and during the genocide, said he saw everybody listening to RTLM: “military personnel or peasants, rebels or intellectuals in cafes, in cars, in the fields; the Rwandan people spend all their time with a receiver stuck to their ear” (quoted in Chrétien et al., 1995, p.74)» (C.L. Kellow and H. L. Steeves, cit.).
According to Chrétien’s statistical analysis, at the beginning of 1994, 58.7% of the urban population and 27.3% of the rural population owned radios; those who did not, relied on friends, neighbors, public places like bars, shops, street markets, and even buses.
The RTLM’s ‘secret weapon’ was made up of many interactive shows and radio phone-ins, a successful novelty for the country. In a broadcast on March 19, 1994, RTLM’s Editor-in-Chief Gaspard Gahigi said: «We have a radio here; even a peasant who wants to say something can come, and we will give him the floor. Then, other peasants will be able to hear what peasants think». Bullshit, of course. No one was really interested in knowing what a peasant could think; at those times, there was widespread social contempt for peasants and poor little people. The truth is different: the founders and the executive managers of the radio knew very well that participation in oral communication opens the way for wide acceptance of any message. RTLM was created to be a powerful propaganda tool, certainly not to give a voice to those who didn’t have it.
The RTLM’s ‘dirty weapon’ was a strategic mix of breaking news and fake news, the latter being the specialty of the Akazu military members since October 4, 1990, and of Ferdinand Nahimana, as well, «the ideologue behind a faked news item broadcast on Radio Rwanda», according to Linda Melvern.
For days, after the assassination of the Burundian President, RTLM, Radio Rwanda, and TVR (Télévision rwandaise) gave great prominence to a horrific account: Melchior Ndadaye was tortured, mutilated, and castrated before death.
Here’s what Habimana Kantano, one of the most famous RTLM presenters, said on the topic during the evening news:
«Burundi first. That’s where our eyes are looking now. Even when the dog-eaters are few in number, they discredit the whole family. That proverb was used by the [Burundian] minister of labor, Mr. Nyangoma, meaning that those Tutsi thugs of Burundi have killed democracy by torturing to death the elected President, Mr. Ndadaye. Those dog-eaters have now started mutilating the body. We have learned that the corpse of Ndadaye was secretly buried to hide the mutilations that those beasts have wrought on his body»
(Translated from a tape provided by Radio Rwanda to Alison Des Forges)
As Alison Des Forges highlighted, all the reports of torture and mutilation were false. In Burundi, immediately after the assassination of the President, «Human Rights Watch, the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, SOS-Torture, and the Human Rights League of the Great Lakes organized an international commission of inquiry similar to that which had documented abuses in Rwanda. The commission arranged for an autopsy by a forensic physician who found that Ndadaye had been killed by several blows of a sharp instrument, probably a bayonet. The body had not been mutilated and showed no signs of torture» (Alison Des Forges, cit.).
So the whole account was fake. Most RTLM listeners could not separate fake news from real ones, not having access to alternative sources of information. The castration detail, in particular, was specifically fabricated to urge the listeners to make an immediate and powerful association with an antique practice carried out in the past by the mwami, the Tutsi king in the pre-colonial era: emasculating slain enemies and adorning the royal drum with those body parts. This fake account was fabricated not just to arouse a series of different violent emotions in the audience, but also to make them think that ‘the Tutsis haven’t changed through the century, and are today as they were in the feudal past’, thus establishing a fruitful link between past and present.
This link was the ‘mantra’ of the Akazu propaganda campaign since 1990. As we saw, the ideological horizon defined by this campaign was a complex construction whose foundations were developed by Belgians and Western White Fathers in the 20s and 30s . Its load-bearing walls were those erected by the Bahutu Manifesto and the racial claims supported by the Hutu emancipation movement from the late 50s to the early 60s. In the 1990-93 propaganda campaign, the references to the Tutsi feudal monarchy and the 1959 Social Revolution were systematic and never fortuitous. We can say exactly the same for RTLM whose refrain was “none is worse than a Hutu who does not remember and honor the 1959 Revolution”. «Georges Ruggiu, RTLM’s Belgian presenter, recalled that the station’s management issued explicit instructions to make such historical comparisons and that he said on the air that “the 1959 revolution ought to be completed to preserve its achievements” (ICTR-97–32-DP2000, par. 110, 186). Kantano Habimana, arguably RTLM’s most popular animateur, once told listeners: “Masses, be vigilant … Your property is being taken away. What you fought for in ’59 is being taken away” (RTLM, 21 January 1994). Venant, a 69-year old Tutsi, told me that RTLM “made [people’s] heads hot [ashyushe imitkwe]” when speaking of how the RPF intended to restore the monarchy and reinstate dreaded colonial-era clientship institutions» (Darryl Li, Echoes of Violence: Considerations on Radio and Genocide in Rwanda, in The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, cit.).
Why were those specific links, those ‘mantras’ so relevant to be a staple in the hardliners’ propaganda?
Because, without them, the war carried out by the Rwandan Patriotic Front against the Habyarimana’s regime would have remained what it simply was, namely a war carried out by the Rwandan Patriotic Front against the Habyarimana’s regime. Those links, those ‘mantras’ were the cornerstone that made it possible to ‘racialize’ the conflict, turning the 1990 attack into the final assault of an all-out war, the war of Tutsis against all Hutus.
So, despite the pub-talk style and the somewhat gross excesses of many speakers, the communication strategy behind the broadcasts was far from being rough and lousy.
«From late October on, RTLM repeatedly and forcefully underlined many of the themes developed for years by the extremist written press, including the inherent differences between Hutu and Tutsi, the foreign origin of Tutsi and, hence, their lack of rights to claim to be Rwandan, the disproportionate share of wealth and power held by Tutsi and the horrors of past Tutsi rule. It continually stressed the need to be alert to Tutsi plots and possible attacks and demanded that Hutu prepare to ‘defend’ themselves against the Tutsi threat (RTLM transcripts: 25 October; 12, 20, 24 November 1993; 29 March; 1, 3 June 1994)» (Alison Des Forges, cit.).
«In November 1993, the Belgian ambassador reported to Brussels that RTLM had called for the assassination of the Prime Minister , who was a moderate politician not in the Hutu Power camp» (The Preventable Genocide, 9.13, cit.).
At the beginning of 1994, the radio urged all Hutus “to defend themselves to the bitter end”, by exterminating the Tutsis. In the following months, it transmitted the list of the cockroaches to eliminate, together with their home address and the number plate of their cars to hunt them at home or halt them at a roadblock. Later, it coordinated the movements and the actions of the civil groups of génocidaires in the 1994 final phase.
«From October 1993 to late 1994, RTLM was used by Hutu leaders to advance an extremist Hutu message and anti-Tutsi disinformation, spreading fear of a Tutsi genocide against Hutu, identifying specific Tutsi targets or areas where they could be found, and encouraging the progress of the genocide. In April 1994, also Radio Rwanda began to advance a similar message, speaking for the national authorities, issuing directives on how and where to kill Tutsis, and congratulating those who had already taken part» (Rwanda Radio Transcript, Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, see Bibliography). Its role in inciting the genocide against Tutsi was so relevant to be known today as “radio genocide”.